Beatboxing with the Maasai

Written by Thomson Safaris
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Thomson guest and talented beatboxer, Ben Mirin, shared a special cultural exchange with the Maasai during his safari earlier this month. The Maasai taught him their ceremonial dance and Ben introduced them to the sounds of beatboxing – music they have never heard before. To see how it all unfolded, watch the video below and then read our interview with Ben to learn more about beatboxing and his unique visit.

This musical experiment is impromptu, but it blends basic beatbox techniques with elements of Maasai traditional dance. Creating it with this amazing group of people was a wonderful experience.

How long have you been beatboxing? Do you beatbox professionally?

I’ve been beatboxing my entire life, or at least as long as I’ve been actively listening to music. My earliest memories of it come from watching cartoons around age seven or eight. I would listen to the theme songs of shows on TV, then repeat the drum and melody lines back to myself, often simultaneously. I can only imagine what my parents thought at the time.

I became a professional beatboxer when I returned to the US from Japan in August 2012. I’ve been performing since late high school, but I got my first paying gigs last fall at clubs in my native Boston. I also developed a curriculum reinforced with beatboxing for an education management startup called Degrees2Dreams in Boston, and am still in the process of refining that program.

How would you describe beatboxing to someone who has never heard it before?

Simply put, beatboxing interprets and reinvents traditional musical sounds through the creativity of the human voice. To say it’s “a person imitating drums” or a DJ might make more sense, but I think that’s too simplistic. I’ve heard beatboxers imitate a huge range of instruments—brass, synth, guitar, etc.—very well, as well as produce musical sounds unique to the human voice. It’s music with your mouth, and it’s a growing genre in Hip Hop and international music.

How did you explain beatboxing to the Maasai?

These Maasai had already shown me incredible kindness by giving a riveting dance performance, and subsequently by teaching me how to dance with them. I explained through a translator that I wanted to express my gratitude by sharing an authentically American musical tradition with them. As the video shows, I began with some very basic beatbox sounds (bass drum, high hat, snare) and asked them to mimic them. Mimicry is a touchstone in my own experience becoming a beatboxer, and I think it’s a natural starting point for anyone interested in trying to learn.

How did the Maasai receive beatboxing?

This I think it is clear in the video…the Maasai loved it! Beatboxing has its roots in New York City, but recently it has become a worldwide phenomenon. This was the first time any of these warriors or women, or the Tanzanians nearby, had heard beatboxing, and I hope a few of them might carry the music with them and help it reach new parts of the world.

What were your impressions of Maasai music?

From what I know about Maasai culture (and I hope to expand that knowledge base), it seems natural that their vocal music tradition should be incredibly robust. In the absence of instruments, which may be too expensive or cumbersome to carry around, they sing with a lot of percussive as well as melodic sounds, from rhythmic bass lines to hisses and loud yelps. It’s completely a product of their environment, and that’s what I love most about it.

How did this experience inspire you creatively and do you think it will inspire your music in the future?

The best thing about beatboxing in my opinion is its universality.  It draws on the inherent creative potential of an instrument—the voice—that people use to speak thousands of unique languages across the world, let alone make music. This experience in Tanzania has really got me thinking about ways to explore beatboxing’s potential as a cross-cultural force, with applications both within and beyond music.

Do you have any additional thoughts about the experience?

It isn’t the last…

I want to extend a final thank you to Thomson Safaris! It’s fantastic that you are so engaged in helping local communities in Tanzania, and as someone who balks at being a tourist wherever and whenever possible, I am grateful for the chance to have done something similar. This wonderful experience couldn’t have happened without everyone involved in your program.